In the calamitous year of Covid, Paralympic swim star Sophie Pascoe has struggled – throwing out all her plans, and dramatically changing her training – yet she’s still smashing world records. 

Sophie Pascoes’s motivations and high standards have never been questioned. You’d be a fool to.

After winning yet another gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the champion swimmer was already talking about the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

She hadn’t even regained her breath, puffing while talking to media; satisfaction eluded her.

Every stroke, every second, all so meticulously planned towards a goal. A mindset, almost as narrow as the lanes she finds success and sovereignty in.

Then, on March 25, 2020, the diary, the schedule and the calendar had to be put in the bin.

The Tokyo Paralympics had been postponed.

“I’m not going to lie; it was really hard. It’s been a really tough year,” she tells LockerRoom from her Christchurch home. “Life is so structured and you try and cram in as much as possible before you leave. And so for it to just unravel in a short timeframe was a struggle.

“It was a struggle in terms of having to re-evaluate everything again and where I’m going to be in another year’s time. My plans were, and the goal was, as I told you at the Commonwealth Games – Tokyo. I was aiming for these specific dates to race.

“And then I was forced to re-evaluate a lot earlier than I’d planned. That was mentally challenging because it was just taken away. I get why, and there’s no hard feelings; we just have to plan again.”

The planning and regrouping though hasn’t been as simple as a straight rinse and repeat from a year ago. It’s not a matter of rewriting everything with a 20 instead of a 19 on the calendar. In fact, the 10-time Paralympic gold medallist reveals she barely has a plan.

“I don’t like it,” Pascoe concedes through laughter.

“It’s hard at the moment to live very unstructured. But we have to. We don’t know when the borders are going to open up and we don’t know where the next competition outside of New Zealand is going to be. And while we have the Games locked in for next year, the world changes on a daily basis. So we have to be prepared to be unprepared.”

Sophie Pascoe is slowly coming to terms with the uncertainty Covid has brought to sport. Photo: Getty Images

That small amount of preparation has seen Pascoe completely change her training regime. She’s gone from at least eight pool sessions a week to four.

“I’ve slowly been making my way towards a new normal, but it changes each week based on how I’m feeling… That’s just where I’m at,” she explains. “We’re focusing on back to basics with technique and skill and I’m still getting in the gym and doing some cross-training as well.”

And yet despite all of this discomfort outside of the pool, inside it, Pascoe’s continued on the same way she has her whole career.

At last month’s New Zealand short course championships in Hamilton, she broke her own world record in the 50m S9 butterfly and set new world times in the SB8 50m breaststroke and S9 50m freestyle. 

“I haven’t lost my love for racing. But we’ve been smart about the training,” Pascoe says.

“Yes I’m only training four times a week, but we’re focusing on the quality in the pool, we’re building up the mileage heading towards Christmas and pre-season… I wouldn’t be quite ready to take that leap to 100 [metres] yet, and so it’s about getting back into the rhythm of that and then towards the 200 individual medley.”

However, the 27-year-old has realised that this setback, the Covid calamity, has forced her to reassess everything.

“Tokyo’s right there. The dream is still alive and I still have the absolute drive and passion to get there; my goals haven’t changed,” she reaffirms. “But I don’t know what life is going to look like after it.

“I can’t tell you ‘yes I’m absolutely going for the next Games’ or ‘no I’m absolutely not’. I don’t know where I’m going to be in a year’s time…none of us do.”

That bears the question: will it be sayonara Sophie after a Tokyo triumph?

“Lockdown allowed me to think about life without swimming. And it was taken away from us for a bit because we couldn’t get into a pool until Level two so it was a long time out of the water,” she says.  

“It really allowed me to think about post-swimming. I’m not going to delve into the details though. But I’m definitely tracking towards having something there, if I decide to finish post-Tokyo.”

Pascoe, who’s studied business, has spent time with her life advisor working out what steps, or in her case, kicks and strokes, need to be made to lay the foundation away from her beloved sport.

“I’m always striving for a legacy inside and outside of the pool. And I haven’t had the energy to work on what that looks like outside. So now that I have somewhat of a vision, it’s just a matter of putting the right things in place so that I’m ready to go when the day comes that I hang up my togs,” she says.

While she’s still uncomfortable with the lack of structure and the unknown, Pascoe’s slowly coming to terms with the change she and the rest of the world have experienced this year.

“I’ve put my time and energy into things I hadn’t been able to before,” she says. “It’s little things I love, like cooking, or having three-day weekends rather than training six days a week. I’ve moved house and been able to organise the house how I’d like it. And just spend time with family and friends.”

Pascoe normally jets off after a big competition, giving her travel agent the instruction to “just book anywhere”. 

“But we haven’t been able to travel so I’ve been able to go to parts of New Zealand I hadn’t before. It’s almost like we take our own backyard for granted. I’ve seen a lot of the world but not as much of my own country… for a South Islander I really enjoyed going to Queenstown and getting to drink the wine!”

Suitably, Pascoe uses a water analogy to sum up how she feels about life.

“I’m living like a wave. Coming and going. It’s now about understanding that my training may change next week based on what’s happening in the world. But we are very, very fortunate that we’re in New Zealand. I couldn’t be more proud to be a New Zealander.”

Alex Chapman is a freelance sports journalist, broadcaster and commentator.

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